Posture Focus – Keeping the shoulders safe in chaturanga dandasana

I realise I haven’t been on the blog since I returned from India. So much to talk about, I don’t know where to begin! So, whilst I gather my thoughts, I’m just updating the blog by adding some of my past newsletter articles as I like to put them on here so a wider readership can access them. So here’s the first, and a few more will follow – enjoy!

Chaturanga dandasana translates as the four-limbed stick posture. It’s the horrific one where you’re using all of your strength to keep yourself hovering just above the floor in a kind of push-up position. There’s no two ways about it – it’s a bummer of a pose, although it’s great for building upper body and core strength and stamina. Despite its horrors, in ashtanga yoga or other dynamic vinyasa-based forms of yoga, we do chaturanga a lot so it’s best to learn how to do it safely, otherwise you can end up damaging the shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle muscles that tend to become overused include the deltoids, rotator cuff muscles and biceps.

The reason the shoulder-girdle muscles are often over-used is because we fail to also engage additional muscles on the chest and back that are required to stabilise the shoulder girdle. These extra muscles include the rhomboids (deep muscles found beneath the shoulder blades), serratus anterior (on the sides of the body), pectoralis minor (on the chest) and trapezius (huge kite-shaped back muscle that starts at the top of the shoulders below the neck).

So, without getting too anatomically heavy, what must we do to engage these extra muscles and relieve the stress on the shoulder girdle?

The best thing to do is to try and draw the shoulders back as much as possible, opening the chest forward. If we have a tight chest this will be difficult, but the effort of attempting the movement will engage the correct muscles and help to draw the shoulder-blades down the back and together. If the shoulder blades are sticking directly upwards (this is called ‘winging’) then we know we’re not engaging the back muscles.

Secondly, look at the position of your arms. The elbows should be slightly behind the wrists and the upper arm should be more or less parallel to the floor. If the shoulders are dipping downwards, and are lower than the elbow, then again you know you’re not engaging the stabilising muscles on the back and chest. The elbows should be close to the sides of the body, although check you’re not cheating by ‘resting’ the rub-cage on the elbows (I do this when I’m not paying enough attention to my inner cheat!).

Thirdly, like with all postures, if you employ an approach of ‘full body integration’ then you avoid putting too much strain on one area. So what does this mean in practice?

To engage the whole body in chaturanga you need to be switching on the bandhas by drawing the navel up to the spine and lifting up on the pelvic floor to engage moola bandha. You could also try pressing down firmly through the palms, which will help switch on the trapezius muscle in the upper back. Also, don’t forget about the huge strength reserves in the legs – contract the quads along the front of the thighs and help activate the legs by drawing the heels backwards, creating length through the body. In fact a way to feel this is to try chaturanga with the feet against a wall – as you actively push the feet into the wall, feel how much lighter the body becomes.

A word of warning:
Chaturanga is tough – it requires strength, which doesn’t come overnight. So rather than blow all your energy on trying to hold it each time, it’s best to build up the strength gradually. You can do this by holding the less intense plank position (the same as chaturanga except the arms are straight, with the shoulders above the wrists) instead, and you can also keep the knees on the floor in plank to begin with, to make it easier. Over time you will develop the strength to lower into chaturanga, but try to do so with full body integration awareness, rather than flopping down belly first.

Chaturanga is generally a transition posture that comes before upward dog in the linking vinyasa sequence between postures or in the sun salutations. It is very intense on the wrist and shoulders, even if you work the whole body fully, therefore I wouldn’t recommend holding it for more than a few breaths. If you’re trying to build up strength and stamina in the upper body I would work instead with plank or plank on the forearms instead.

Contra-indications:

  • If you have wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, this may exacerbate the problem.
  • Don’t do chaturanga if you’re pregnant.
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This entry was posted in Anatomy focus, Ashtanga yoga, Posture breakdown, Yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

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